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The Future of Work

Why Millennials Don't Need Special Treatment To Thrive At Work

Our best-intentioned efforts to support millennials and women might be causing us to look past the fundamentals.

Why Millennials Don't Need Special Treatment To Thrive At Work
[Photo: Kzenon via Shutterstock]

Companies are rightly concerned with figuring out what to do about millennials. Two of the biggest questions on that front are about how to manage a multigenerational workplace and retain their best young talent—both questions that the International Consortium for Executive Development Research's (ICEDR) recent report sets out to answer, with a special eye to millennial women. These are the five key requests the ICEDR says millennial women ask of employers:

  1. "Know me": Invest the time to understand me as a person and what interests me both inside and outside of work.
  2. "Challenge me": I want to have continued opportunities to learn and grow.
  3. "Connect me:" Relationships are important—I want to interact and collaborate with a wide network of people.
  4. "Inspire me": I want to derive a sense of meaning from my work.
  5. "Unleash me": I want to take good risks and have autonomy over my time and projects.

While it's true that women and millennials face unique challenges in the workplace that others don't, addressing them might be easier than companies seem to think. When it comes down to the essential elements needed to thrive at work, one size pretty much does fit all.

The Basics Line Up

So why aren't we getting it right? For starters, it may be that the pursuit of a workplace "framework for women" or a "model for millennials" is leading us to lose sight of the fundamentals. At base, the same ingredients that drive success for a male baby boomer are the same as those for a female millennial. It might actually serve organizations and their employees—all their employees—better to refocus on those shared features.

If you glance over the ICEDR's framework, you'll notice plenty of congruence with a handful of other recent models for workplace well-being and success. For instance, what researchers call "centered leadership" is built on these five dimensions:

  1. Meaning
  2. Framing (adapting to change and building self-awareness)
  3. Energizing (tapping into the our natural energy reserves and rhythms)
  4. Connecting (interacting and collaborating with a wide network of people)
  5. Engaging (taking good risks and using your voice)

Sound familiar? This framework, too, was developed specifically with women leaders in mind, yet McKinsey acknowledges, "It is the centered women or man who sustains a successful leadership journey." The "PERMA" model of well-being developed by Dr. Martin Seligman likewise consists of five elements:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Achievement

Of course, five may simply be a practical number for management experts to convey their research. But the bigger point is that their substance is remarkably similar. Here are a few basic strategies, drawn from these and other models, that leaders and managers can use to help everyone in their organizations thrive, age and gender aside.

1. Give More Than You Take

One of the consistent themes in many models of leadership and well-being is having good relationships. That makes sense: Success in so many facets of life depends on how you approach interactions with other people. At work, people differ in their preferences for reciprocity—how much they prefer to give versus take. According to Wharton Professor Adam Grant, takers like to get more than they give, while givers focus more on other's needs. Matchers are a mix of the two, striking an even balance between giving and taking.

One benefit of being a giver has to do with meaningfulness, another one of the most persistent themes. One study showed that being a giver helped maximize the impression of meaning that others (the recipients of others' giving) found in their work. Takers' behaviors, on the other hand, appeared to have the opposite effect.

2. Make Decisions Count

Multiple researchers have found that managing energy is another piece of the well-being puzzle for employees. (In addition to featuring in the McKinsey research, it's also a key component in Tom Rath’s "fully charged" model.) In our culture of busyness addiction, it’s easy to get swept up in your day, and before you know it, it’s 6 p.m. and time to go home.

The trick to feeling more in control of your time is to maximize your "decision points"—those moments when a task ends or gets interrupted. To test this out, I kept track of the number of decision points I had in one day, and the answer—eight—stunned me. I'd decided ahead of time to be really intentional about what to do next, rather than check my fantasy football updates. So even if your work is pretty steady and you only have two or three decision points each day, make sure each transition is meaningful and efficient.

Companies can help employees do a better job of that through training and the way they structure job responsibilities. Here are three tips for minding those transitions from one task to the next:

  1. Be mindful enough to recognize when you're switching gears.
  2. Plan your decision points in advance on your calendar; if you know one meeting ends at 10 a.m. and the next one isn’t until 11, decide ahead of time how you’re going to spend that hour.
  3. Don’t start a new task without consciously deciding it’s the right one to do next. Pause first and reflect on why you're moving on to that thing and not another.

3. Create More Positive Emotions

Decades of research show that positive emotions help you think more creatively, remember more information, lower your blood pressure, build up your resilience, and shorten your recovery time from stress. They also tend to lead to more prosocial behaviors. Not only are positive emotions a key piece of the PERMA framework, they also tie in to many of the other models above.

It's no wonder why—feeling positively at work isn't something that just millennials want or need. It's a basic requirement for anyone to thrive. But one reason we might be falling short is organizations' failure to recognize that not all positive emotions are created (or valued) equally.

In a series of studies, researchers found that Westerners (and Americans in particular) value "high-intensity" positive emotions, like excitement and elation, to a greater degree than they do "low-intensity" ones, like calm and serenity, when they're trying to influence others. In fact, high-intensity positive emotions activate your stress response much in the same way that high-intensity negative emotions do. So those upbeat workplace messages about staying "fired up" or "pumped up" may actually have the reverse effect, draining employees' energy and stressing them out.

And there, too, the data show little difference by age, gender, or any other demographic factor. When it comes to our working lives, some facts hold true across the board. While it's no secret that generational differences exist—and plenty of unjust discrepancies persist—what ultimately leads to success and well-being is one-size-fits-all.

Paula Davis-Laack is a speaker, lawyer, and expert on work-related stress, burnout, and resilience. Follow her on Twitter at @pauladavislaack.

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